I love when my sense of perspective gets messed with. Good art — books, music, movies… whatever — should leave you thinking slightly differently than before you were exposed to it. Take “I Am A God,” for example. There’s a good chance that, if you’ve heard the song a few times, a croissant is no longer just a croissant to you. It’s a threshold. A dividing line. Between two classes of rich people. Between faking it and making it. It’s also a punchline, delivered in a way that makes it hard to take the word at face value anymore (I have to think that people’s patience when waiting on an order of croissants won’t be the same, either).
I don’t know that Jason Isbell intended for it to — and this may be an entirely idiosyncratic reaction — but Southeastern has done something similar, though considerably more uplifting, with the word “down.”
In so many ways, “down” is a negative term. It’s on the losing end of an entrenched binary opposition — up vs. down; we use it in idiomatic expressions like “downer,” “on the down side,” and “going down” (Mad Men fans know from the recent season finale how cutting that last expression can be); it’s the wrong way for the stock market to go, the wrong way for your emotions to go, the wrong way to look if you’re scared of heights… I could keep going, but you get the idea. Down equals bad.
But it doesn’t have to.
The notion hit me when I was running and listening to “Different Days,” which features a great descending guitar line — the kind that falls quickly but feels more like Forrest Gump’s feather than something that’s on a crash course. It’s graceful, and so is Isbell’s newfound footing after getting married and taking some time to deal with substance-abuse issues. With that biographical information in mind, it occurred to me that the descending riff from “Different Days” could act a proxy for the album as a whole and, as I interpret it from a distance, for this moment in Isbell’s life.
Down, in this case, is good. There’s a peacefulness to Southeastern that’s confident, beneficial and true. You might call it “calmed down.” “Down to Earth.” “Slowed down” (“Super 8” notwithstanding). Songs feel effortless and under control, downhill even, as if gravity extracted them like sap from a maple tree. Isbell’s songwriting has always seemed easy — his delivery is so natural that heaps of subtlety and wit can fly by if you’re not paying attention — but these tracks convey senses of contentment and conviction that hadn’t registered before. More than anything else, it feels like settling down, and that “down” feels resoundingly right.
Maybe this interpretation appeals to me because I’m a month away from turning 30 and am trying to pump the brakes myself. Inasmuch as that’s probably true, I intend to keep this album close, so I don’t forget that taking things down a notch can be a good thing.
Check out a live version of “Different Days” below, along with the album version of “Stockholm,” which you can buy here.